Globalization: Déjà vu all over again?
February 16, 2011

You’d think from current writing on transnationalism that our interconnected society is an exceptional time in human affairs. Reading work on globalization, by either academics or journalist, you get the impression that we are experiencing a unique phenomenon. Writers are so taken by contemporary developments that they forget to set them in a historical context.

Many of the papers published in Profession 2010, the annual publication of the Modern Language Association, are no exception. Grouped under the title “The Tasks of Translation in the Global Context,” they reflect on the place of translation in the humanities. But often they end up overemphasizing the newness of the new.

Consider the following sentence taken from one of the articles: “Ours is by any standards a culturally interwoven and interdependent world.”

When was human society not interconnected? It seems to me that social networks are the nexus of all societies. When was translation, the topic of the volume, either in the metaphorical or literal sense, not practiced by settled societies? Globalization, if by this we mean the spread of ideas, goods, and people, has always defined human affairs. Indeed, the rule of history has been ethnic, religious, and racial mixing, along with the exchange of goods. People have moved because of trade, war, disease, environmental degradation, or wanderlust.

Of course, the speed with which people, ideas, and goods can travel today and the saturation of the world by capitalism is unprecedented. The convergence among personal and public forms of communication is really unique. There is also an immediacy to our communication today that was not possible before.

For instance, we have all been transfixed in the past three weeks by the images of the revolution breaking out in Egypt. Were not most human hearts around the world brimming with joy at the jubilation in Tahrir Square? Pictures were beamed and messages sent from the center of the action, giving us all the sense of direct participation in earth-shaking acts. It was one of those rare global events when everyone seemed to be down the street or just next door.

But there is a certain apotheosis these days of the new media, the assumption spreading that social networking sites miraculously caused the upheavals. What is the message here, the medium or the revolution? Each revolution has had its own technological impetus, printed pamphlets in 1776, Facebook pages in 2011. The news here is less the networking among the elites than the actual empowerment that took place among millions of people. The first is noteworthy but it did not bring about the self-institution of the Egyptian citizens.

There was a world before Facebook, Twitter, and Skype. Remember the bombing of Baghdad that we got in real time through CNN during Iraq War I? Television, radio, and the telegraph were all different technologies that brought people closer together. How about print or writing? Were they not revolutionary modes of interconnectedness? I can go on ad absurdum. What about language itself and the spread of human beings from East Africa to Tierra del Fuego in a relatively short time?

We have made concepts like hybridity, border crossing, ethnic mixing, and media interdependence into critical clichés and we congratulate ourselves as interpreters of the obvious. We celebrate the cultural mixing of the Caribbean or New York and forget about other such ethnic cauldrons in the past: Incan Cuzco, Hellenistic Alexandria, Ottoman Istanbul, Mesopotamian Uruk, just to name a few global cities. How about the Silk Road that linked people and goods over two vast continents?

If polyethnicity and multiculturalism have been the constant feature of human society, if the world has always been global, if exchange has determined our relations from primordial times, what has been exceptional has been the spread of nationalism over the last three centuries. This ideology has promulgated the belief that societies are mono-cultural, that there must be an overlap between the state and nation, that all people living within a border are the same. But has there ever been a society that could fit neatly into the nationalist model?

The current celebration of multiculturalism and transnationalism can only make sense as a reaction to the procrustean thinking of nationalism. But just because nationalism claimed that societies were homogeneous does not mean that they were. Nationalism believed its own press releases and so have we.

Our reaction to nationalist thought and our chronocentric obsessions make us over-hype the exceptionalism of the here and now. We have forgotten that the world has always been global. In comparison to the spread of Arabic or Islam, the appearance of Facebook seems like just a tiny … tweet.

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